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Facing Climate Change with Optimism

April 27, 2022

In “Climate Change & the Energy Evolution,” students learn how to use their legal skills to decarbonize the world’s economy.

As concerns about warming global temperatures and rising sea levels continue to grow, climate change has increasingly dominated political, economic, and scientific decision-making across the world — and the private energy sector is at the heart of many essential conversations pertaining to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

In the cutting-edge course “Climate Change & the Energy Evolution,” co-Lecturers in Law Maggie Peloso and Kaam Sahley guide University of Pennsylvania Carey Law students in a deep dive into the private energy sector and its impending transformation as the world shifts toward more sustainable energy solutions.

Both Peloso and Sahley are partners at Vinson & Elkins. Peloso concentrates her work in the firm’s Environmental & Natural Resources practice, while Sahley is in Energy Transactions & Projects. Accordingly, “Climate Change & the Energy Evolution” stands out as an intentionally pragmatic course geared toward preparing students for meaningful careers assisting in the rapid decarbonization of the global economy.

“I … hope that the course inspires [students] to think about the power that the private sector has to address the climate challenge and to consider careers that they might not have thought about before,” Peloso said.

Addressing Climate Change

Students enrolled in “Climate Change & the Energy Evolution” spend the first half of the course analyzing climate science, discussing the need for the dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and familiarizing themselves with the variety of regulatory stakeholders who drive the legal realities of the energy transition.

Claire Parker L’22, who took the course last year, underscored the importance of learning about climate science and politics, noting that this portion of the course allowed her to garner a more nuanced and informed understanding of the global scope of energy systems and necessary transformations.

“We explored the broad, international frameworks for climate change and the energy evolution,” Parker said. “Early on in the class, we each had the opportunity to represent a country during mock negotiations as the United States sought to rejoin the Paris Agreement, which was a great look into the complex interests of stakeholders when it comes to climate change.”

Because climate science continues to evolve and regulatory decisions within the energy sector are often highly politicized, this material can change from semester to semester. During the course’s first iteration in 2021, the Presidential Inauguration offered a natural opportunity to contrast Trump Administration policies from Biden Administration promises; this year, a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report included major developments from climate scientists.

“You’ve got a lot of regulatory flux, and that makes teaching the course both very challenging and very rewarding. Being able to teach students cutting-edge concepts and trying to get them to engage with material in the way that they will be expected to as lawyers is really fun,” Peloso said. “We spend a lot of time on current events. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the dynamics of the energy market are changing and how those changes are important factors when thinking about the kinds of things you might get asked to do as a lawyer and how you’re going to help.”

Practical Application

“Climate Change & the Energy Evolution” is designed as a simulation course. Instead of being graded on a final written exam, students earn points through a series of smaller, practical assignments throughout the semester designed to hone the skills they will need to draw upon when they enter the work force.

“I want students to walk away feeling like we’ve given them an experience that helps to make sitting at their desk on day one at their first job a little bit less terrifying. When they get that first assignment, whether it’s a research memo or a contract, I want them to feel that it’s not quite as much of a foreign language as it would have been otherwise,” Peloso said. “The most difficult part of my job isn’t knowing what the law is — because particularly in climate, it is always shifting — but rather thinking about: How do I do my job most effectively? What kinds of advocacy choices am I going to make? How does this deal get negotiated? We really wanted to bring how things get done in the real world into the class.”

In one project, students facilitate a mock client meeting wherein they are tasked with going over a climate report and advising the clients on how they might make improvements to the report. The “clients” are actually real clients from Peloso’s firm who are portraying other clients within the industry.

For Parker, the different assignments provided a rare opportunity to understand what work in this sector actually looks like.

“A very challenging, but exciting, topic in the class was learning the ins and outs of renewable energy projects. With so many moving parts to the development and financing of renewable energy projects and transactions, I was extremely excited for the opportunity to take an in-depth look at these issues before starting my career,” said Parker. “In class, we looked at every stage of the development process, starting with project documentation, tax equity considerations, and the various contracts involved in the complicated portfolios surrounding energy projects. This inside look at these complicated transactions is hard to find, and the class presentations, exercises, and guest speakers helped bring together pieces of the very complicated energy evolution puzzle.”

Because the course is part of the Kleinman Center’s Energy Certificate program, it attracts graduate and professional-level students from across the University. For Peloso, the resulting diversity of students in the classroom brings inherent value to the course — and further mimics the reality of working to solve quintessentially interdisciplinary problems in the energy sector.

“This year in our class, we have a really nice mix of law students, graduate students in the sciences, and business students,” Peloso said. “When we do group work, they all bring really different perspectives to it, and the result is similar to what it’s like to work on a team in a professional setting. I think that adds a lot of richness to the course.”

Optimism and Opportunity

Parker reflected that taking “Climate Change & the Energy Evolution” left her feeling confident not only in her substantive understanding of energy law, but also in her practical ability to participate in the sector and work toward finding real solutions to the climate crisis.

“This course provided the best knowledge base of the industry and practice trends relating to climate change and the energy evolution that I could have asked for,” said Parker. “I feel more equipped to tackle client issues and also now have the knowledge base to keep up with this constantly evolving area of law.”

For Peloso, the confidence and empowerment Parker expressed is among the most important aspects of teaching this course.

I want students to walk away understanding the magnitude of the challenges and also that there are actual, real things going on in the world that should be reasons for hope around addressing climate,” Peloso said.

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